updated 7/10/2008 1:08:25 PM ET 2008-07-10T17:08:25

U.S. officials traveled to the Gaza border Thursday, going to unusual lengths to process the visa applications of three Palestinians who nearly lost their Fulbright scholarships because they couldn't leave the Gaza Strip.

Israel had denied entry to the three Palestinian university students, thus preventing them from traveling to the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem to apply for their visas. Instead, U.S. officials, carrying fingerprinting equipment for the visa applications, drove to the Erez Crossing on the Israel-Gaza border Thursday and met with them.

Students cannot apply for U.S. visas in Gaza because Washington does not recognize the territory's Hamas government.

Thursday's complex procedure highlighted the difficulties that Gaza students accepted at universities abroad face — they cannot leave because of Israeli and Egyptian travel bans imposed after the violent Hamas takeover of Gaza last year.

The plight of Gaza's university students made headlines in May, after U.S. officials announced they revoked the Fulbright scholarships of seven Gazans because of the Israeli travel ban. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got involved, and four of the Fulbright scholars have since been able to apply for their visas in Jerusalem.

The travel ban on the remaining three — those who met with the U.S. officials Thursday — remained in effect.

The Israeli human rights group Gisha estimates that hundreds of students registered at foreign universities are stuck in Gaza. It called on Israel to lift all restrictions on students.

"The fact that the U.S. has to jump through so many hoops to get seven students out of Gaza shows how draconian the closure policy is," said Israeli activist Sari Bashi, director of Gisha. "The U.S. should use its influence to change the policy, not just let a few lucky students out."

'Symbol of our commitment'
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack acknowledged that the trip to the Gaza border was unusual. "It is certainly not the norm," he said. "It's a symbol of our commitment to the Fulbright program and to educational exchanges."

Trips by American officials to the Erez Crossing are rare due to security concerns, and McCormack said Washington was hopeful that similar outings to Erez would not be necessary in the future.

"The hope is that this is a one-time event and that we'll now be able to follow a normal process," he said.

Israeli military officials were not available for comment Thursday.

Israel's ban on all Gaza students leaving the territories has drawn widespread international criticism.

Israeli officials said last month that as part of Israel's policy toward Hamas, only humanitarian hardship cases would be allowed to leave Gaza, and that students didn't fall into that category.

However, Maj. Peter Lerner, an Israeli spokesman, said at the time that the cases of some students would be reviewed, and that priority would be given to recipients of foreign government scholarships.

In an exception to that policy, Israel late last year let out several hundred students in special convoys.

Journey from Gaza
The journey of the three Gaza students — Zuhair Abu Shaaban, Fidaa Abed and Osama Daoud — began Thursday morning in Gaza City. They got into a van for the 30-minute ride to the Erez crossing. They got out at the last Palestinian checkpoint, several hundred meters away from the Erez terminal, built into the wall-and-fence complex ringing Gaza.

After Israeli officials gave the go-ahead to their Palestinian counterparts over walkie talkie, the students — along with a few other travelers — walked along a destroyed road to the terminal and after security checks reached the Israeli side.

There, sitting on plastic chairs in the terminal building, they were called one by one for their visa interviews.

Once the visas are approved, they will be allowed to travel through Israel under U.S. escort to catch flights from Jordan.

Abed, 23, smiled after emerging from his interview, saying he was told he'd receive word on his visa in coming days.

Abed is headed to the University of California at San Diego for a graduate degree in computer science. Abu Shaaban, 24, plans to study electrical engineering at the University of Connecticut and Daoud, 25, is seeking a doctorate in civil engineering at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Daoud said that after his degree, he hopes to return to Gaza to teach at a university and work to solve in Gaza's environmental problems.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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